Sunday, April 26, 2009

Kofi Anyidoho, PraiseSong for TheLand

It pains me to write this, but I was unimpressed by Anyidoho's PraiseSong for TheLand.

Perhaps it is the reading from the page that is lacking. But they feel... unoriginal. There's little spark, few memorable lines or images that haven't been presented more forcefully, movingly, elsewhere (and in some instances, by Anyidoho himself).

To get an idea of the true power -- the potential -- of Anyidoho's poetry, fast forward to the 57th minute of University of Iowa's International Writing Program's "Africa Night" reading (12 September 2002).

Too many of the poems in PraiseSong turn on imagery that is all too familiar, worn: not comfortable so much as predictable. And Anyidoho's seeming fetishization of capitalization (Winds, Witness, Thunder, Solitude, Orphan Child, and on and on) distracts in print -- perhaps more than it should (and perhaps that's more my fault than that of the poet) -- but not (obviously) in the readings on the accompanying cd. And here is the collections most noteworthy and spectacular (and redeeming) aspect: the inclusion of a compact disc of Anyidoho reading (and singing, with others) the collection.

It is this -- the readings, Anyidoho's voice and performance of the verse -- that make this a collection worth having. And worth returning to. I'm not sure how, on a second and third listen, I'll feel about the imagery and evocation of common themes and background. Perhaps just weary rather than seduced. But there is a passion in the audio, heard, and felt, that is absent in print -- and a passion I am willing to return to, and perhaps be redeemed by, if there is redemption to be had.

Thomas E Ricks, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008

Part of my "war reading" and, as with my first foray (on Clausewitz), this was rather slow going. To start (though it might also have been exacerbated by the ridiculous number of typos that seem to have escaped the copy/editing process -- really just shocking to see so many in a book of this stature released by a major press).

Unsurprisingly, Clausewitz makes an appearance (or three) here: in the epigraph that opens the book -- "Surprise and initiative...are infinitely more important and effective in strategy than in tactics" -- and twice more as something of a valediction (once the new strategy -- the surge, and the concomitant nurturing of the "Sunni Awakening" and much else -- has been set as the way out of the morass).

I still have not read Ricks' previous volume on Iraq, Fiasco (it is on the pile -- and has been since it's release), but considering the current state of things -- the apparent tactical success of "the surge" and the fact that the economy and Afghanistan have largely overtaken news of Iraq -- I thought it important to try to understand what was happening. And why.

And The Gamble does that admirably. Whether this journalistic first draft of history holds up on each and every point is unlikely, and the early portions are unstintingly depressing, but on the whole it reads as... I can't say it's a "balanced" presentation. I'm not sure there are two sides to the story. But Ricks doesn't seem hell-bent on caricaturing anyone. One of the critiques I heard when the book first came out and Ricks was popping up on talk shows and news magazines to discuss the book was that it read as an "admiring" portrayal: of Petraeus, yes, but also of (the evolution of) General Ray Odierno. And it does. It is.

Ricks was also quick to point out in all those interviews that the tactical, on-the-ground success of "the surge" was not being matched by political progress in Iraq, which the quelling of violence and the military's re-orientation to population protection was supposed to allow (and serve as the "benchmark" for measuring the ultimate success of the strategy).
No matter how the U.S. war in Iraq ends, it appears today we may be only halfway through it. That is, the quiet consensus emerging among many people who have served in Iraq is that we likely will have American soldiers engaged in combat in Iraq until at least 2015... (325)
The long war indeed. This comes at the end. And though this rather bleak assessment does not stand alone, I do wish there had been a more thorough discussion of how the success of the strategy fits with the purported political goals and aspirations that were set when the surge was proposed and first implemented.

It is more than a little dispiriting to read of how rudderless the administration (and military, for that matter) seemed to be as Iraq spiraled out of control. Not surprising, but distressing. Equally disturbing is reading of how much influence think tanks & retired generals seemed to exercise in the entire process -- not because they were invited in (one could only wish!!) but rather because, in many instances, there was a gap into which they could push themselves. And push they did.

It's not incorrect to wonder if an analogous gap -- between security and political reconciliation -- isn't currently open and widening in Iraq. And that is a cause for great concern, because there's no telling what or who will push their way in.